Every step they took was carefully placed, after Chald's death, but still Ghayle wondered if her children would make it to the mountain. She had watched every moment, through her connection to the world, and all those who lived on it. Although she was insubstantial, unable to affect the world physically, she longed to do so. Her children were in trouble.
But she had to have faith; after all, she demanded the same of many. Though the group was dwindling, she believed in Neredos most of all. She had worried at first when he had stayed behind to fight the demons, sacrificing himself for the others. But from his distant vantage point, Naxthul had ensured that Neredos would not fall.
Naxthul had agreed with Ghayle that Neredos seemed to be the best pick to replace her. The human had a good head on his shoulders, both in terms of perspective and general intelligence. He saw things in a way that most did not, and he had an earnest desire to protect the world and the people living on it. If anyone could shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding the world, it was him.
Some of the others showed potential as well, though Ghayle did not believe quite as strongly in them. She was certain her replacement would be amongst the group heading toward the gate, but the others each had their issues that Ghayle believed would interfere with their duties.
Revash was too young, inexperienced and prone to bouts of emotion that could lead her to rash decisions. Nijal was too bound to her methods; she would be just as likely to resort to destruction, as guidance, if she were to become the world's avatar. Veil was too reluctant to lead; her confidence had been shattered at Khadrun, and she'd yet to regain it.
Prism . . . Ghayle liked Prism. He was loyal and dependable, but was that toward the world, or simply the people he cared about? Could he truly be trusted to watch over everyone? No, Ghayle decided. No, Prism did not love the world enough.
And Grim. Poor, cynical Grim. Ghayle saw a lot of herself in the young Fedain, and that scared her most of all. How could she trust the world to someone who reminded her of herself? She had failed the world, so what could Grim do but fail it as well? No, he was the least, of all amongst those still headed for the gate.
And that left her with one. Only Neredos seemed full of enough vision and confidence to overcome the darkness in the world. Only he was fit to guide them into the future, once the Trial was over.
But it was not up to her. Oh, her input would be considered, but the final decision would be Naxthul's. It wasn't proper for her to have the final say, because she was too close to the issue. This had been her world for four thousand years, and that was four thousand years for Naxthul to be apart from it. He had a clear head, she did not.
She hoped that once the gate was sealed, the rest of the demons would be dealt with in short order. There remained some instability among the peoples of the world, most notably in the mind of the ambitious Odiran thulu'Khant. He would be one of the first to attempt to throw the world out of order once the Trial was over. He wouldn't be the last. That was the way of things, after all. People forgot why they needed to band together. People had ever shorter memories as generations passed.
Progress would be achieved by those who remembered and were able to pass on the lessons learned. The world would have peace for a time, as those lessons took root and blossomed. But there would be war again. There would be hate again.
But she hoped Neredos would do better than she had. Perhaps, this time, the children of the world would finally learn.
Perhaps, but likely not.
Mount Varun lay before Neredos like a wicked spire piercing the sky. It called to him like a beacon, summoning him with primal energy. He didn't understand it, but he knew his destiny would take him there.
It had already brought them this far. Though they had now lost three members of their original group, their smaller numbers made it easier to move undetected. If the Vhor still knew the route the group was taking, they had yet to put anything in their path. Until now, anyway.
Demons swarmed all over the valley before them. Was this part of what the Vhor, who had worn Morga's skin, had meant when it said that 'He would be waiting for them here'? There were more demons than Neredos had ever seen in one spot, all congregating at the base of Mount Varun.
Neredos remembered what fear felt like. He had become numb to it over the years of fighting, but with what lay before him, it came rushing back. Mount Varun rose between two other peaks, and a valley formed between them. A frigid wind blew through it all, adding an icy contrast to the fiery forms of the Ibrix demons. The grey sky loomed ominously overhead, and though no lightning pierced it, the crackle of electricity pulsed from both the scaled and furred Aika demons dominating the sky and the ground. Horned Goden and bone-plated Nobak demons stomped through the icy forests on the valley floor, and throughout, iridescent scaled Quay demons slithered and flew on feathered wings.
There were hundreds of them. Possibly thousands, though Neredos was too lost in the sight to attempt to count them all. And these stood in the way of him reaching his goal. He had no idea what to do. For the first time in his life, his genius could not provide him with a solution.
"There are so many of them," Veil said, her expression betraying the fear she felt. Neredos could hear her shallow breathing, as if she worried that if she breathed any louder, the demons would somehow hear her. "How are we going to get past them?"
"The same way we get past everything," Grim replied. Of all the members of the group, he was the least affected by the sight before them. He was as calm and collected as always, though there was a tightness to his eyes. "We use everything we've got. The gate is on the other side of them, and that is what we must reach. What else matters?"
"Normally I appreciate your straightforwardness," Prism said, his mouth twitching as his stunned gaze took in the sight of the demons, "but this . . .? This won't be simple. We can't just improvise like normal."
Grim frowned. "Are you sure I can't just walk out there and get them to come at me? How many can fight me at once? I think I can stay alive."
Prism glared at Grim, but the Fedain simply shrugged and remained silent. Neredos stared, bewildered at the pair, wondering at their madness.
"I could . . ." Revash began, but she trailed off, blowing air through her lips as she stared at the demons. Could what? Neredos didn't have a good answer either.
After a moment, Nijal pointed to several points on the other mountains surrounding the valley. "I think I see some potential, if you look near the peaks. Do you see that snow?"
Neredos looked at the two peaks, seeing the heavy drifts of snow that graced them despite the late summer season. The snow never completely melted in the Dobraeg, and snowstorms continued through the summer along the mountain peaks. The snow on those slopes was fresh, less than a week old.
"Yeah, what about it?" Neredos asked.
"What are the chances you could get me up there unseen?" Nijal replied.
"Well, there's a lot of air traffic . . ." Neredos said, surveying the skies and attempting to count the demons again before giving up. "It would be difficult, but not necessarily impossible. What's your plan?"
"I could rig simultaneous charges on both peaks. Trigger avalanches to blanket the valley floor and bury the bulk of our problem," Nijal explained.
"Do you think that'd destroy them or just piss them off?" Prism asked. "We'd still have the fliers to worry about, not to mention the Quay are great at digging, and I imagine the Ibrix could simply melt their way out."
"I think it'd buy us some time, at least. And if I use the right kind of charge, they might not even realize it's unnatural," Nijal said with a shrug.
Neredos nodded to himself, then turned to her again. "Could you teach me how to set the charges?" He asked.
"Yes, probably," Nijal replied. "They have blood-based enchantments on them so that I can activate them from anywhere. If you put them in the right spot, it shouldn't be an issue."
"I trust my ability to get myself to those peaks a lot more than I trust my ability to get both of us up there," Neredos said. "Not only will I not have to worry about weight, but I can move faster on my own as well."
"Works for me," Nijal said, then reached into her pack and pulled out several bundles of explosives. "These are the charges you will use. I'll give you the basics once we establish the rest of the plan."
"Okay, so that can reduce the number of ground demons we have to deal with, but how do we get to the other side?" Prism asked.
"I think I might have an idea for that," Revash said, her tone indicating that she was surprising herself with the idea.
Silence followed her proclamation as she surveyed the valley. When the silence had dragged on too long for Neredos, he said, "Then by all means, share."
"Morga . . ." Revash began, but her words were lost somewhere in her emotions. She gulped back a sob and tried again, "My uncle used to say that sometimes to sneak up on the herd, you had to become the herd."
"What does that mean?" Neredos asked.
"It goes back to what Nijal and Veil were saying a few days ago, about infiltration? What if we became demons?" Revash said.
"I don't follow," Prism replied.
"An illusion spell," Neredos said thoughtfully, catching on to Revash's logic. "They're tricky, because if any of them were to interact with us . . ."
"We die," Revash confirmed with a nod. "Illusion spells are the easiest to break. I know a good one for manipulating light and scent to make us appear as something we are not. We just have to avoid colliding with any of them. That's the only thing."
"Well, what if someone draws their attention?" Grim asked. "That way you can all wear your disguises and pass by without having to worry about interacting with any of them."
"Grim . . ." Prism said dangerously.
"I'm serious, Prism," Grim said firmly. "We've come to the end of the world to prevent the end of the world. This is it. Right now. How many times do I have to drive the point home? We have one chance to do this, and the best chance is if we can make a path for Neredos to get to the top of that mountain."
"That's a good point, actually," Prism said, latching onto some of Grim's words as he turned back to Neredos. "We only need to get you up there, and you can fly. Why not just go straight there?"
"No . . ." Neredos said, staring up the mountain. Despite it calling to them, there was something about it. An energy he could sense, but not define. It scrambled his mind as he tried to think about magic. "I don't think I can, actually. Not there."
"Why not?" Veil asked.
"Do you remember Ghayle saying that she couldn't teleport there? Or the cryptic nonsense she said that implied she couldn't?" Neredos replied.
"Yes. You think your magic will fail if you try?" Veil asked.
"I get a sense of that when I look toward Varun's peak. I think I'm going to have to walk most of the way," Neredos replied. "And I don't think that's going to be easy."
Revash stared toward the peak, squinting as if trying to make something out. "I wonder if it will affect my magic as well? I can see what you're talking about, but . . . I think it'll work in the valley."
"I agree," Neredos replied.
"So . . ." Nijal said, gathering their attention again, "this is the plan. Neredos lays the charges, then we all cross as some illusionó"
"With me distracting everything that moves," Grim interrupted.
"Ió" Prism started protest.
"Prism," Grim said firmly, laying a hand on Prism's arm. "Somebody must open a pathway for everyone else. It can't be Neredos, because now that we're here, it should be he and Revash climbing Mount Varun and trying to close the gate. I'm the only one who has a chance of surviving long enough." His expression soured as Prism opened his mouth to protest again, and Grim added, "Your nanites can't protect you the way that my biology can."
"I should be by your side then," Prism said softly.
"That's silly. Normally, I'd agree, but in this case . . ." Grim looked out to the sea of demons, nodding to himself. "I'm not going to fight them, I'm just going to keep them busy until that avalanche comes down."
"And how will you get out of that avalanche?" Prism asked.
Grim shrugged as if it didn't matter. "I'll think of something."
Prism frowned, clearly still unhappy with the idea, then turned to Neredos. "Then Veil, Nijal, and I will guard your ascent. We'll kill anything that tries to follow you up," he said. "Grim can join us after he . . ." He paused, shooting Grim a glare before he went on, "'thinks of something'."
"Do you think the three of you can hold off any demons coming your way?" Neredos asked skeptically.
"Do you think you can fend off the flying demons without magic?" Prism replied.
Neredos sighed, chastened by Prism's retort. "Let's hope so. I suppose we'll just have to focus on avoiding them once magic becomes useless. Although . . ." Neredos gazed back toward the mountain, eyeing it thoughtfully. "There doesn't seem to be any demons on the mountain itself. Perhaps they have to avoid it as well."
"I think that would be a little too much luck," Veil said. "But maybe there is some force of good at play in all of this. Something that wants us to succeed."
"Is this the best plan we've got?" Prism asked. "I still don't like it."
"It's the only plan we have," Nijal reminded him.
Neredos nodded. "It's time to put it into action."
"Charges first," Grim said, and to Neredos' surprise, the Fedain was actually grinning. "Then I'll take care of the rest."
Neredos managed to set the charges without incident. Using the cover of the forest, he flew to a place where he could not be seen by the demons in the valley, then flew high enough that he was above the clouds. He did a quick circuit of the two peaks guarding access to Mount Varun, placing the explosives where Nijal had directed him to, then attempted to fly straight toward Mount Varun.
Once his flight started to fail, he turned around and headed back for the others. When he arrived, he explained everything that he had done, then reported on the state of the magic-suppressing field. He and Revash would have to climb Mount Varun; it would be the only way.
Prism still had grave misgivings about this plan, but he was willing to go through with it. He trusted his companions and their abilities, but he didn't want to see any of them get hurt. However, he knew he couldn't control fate. He also knew he couldn't stand in the way of others doing what they wanted to do, or felt they needed to do. Even Grim, though as the task ahead loomed over them, his mind was filled with all the things he wanted to tell his lover.
They were ready to descend into the valley now, and Grim started to move, eager to begin the next phase. Prism reached out and grabbed him, stopping him. "You are not going anywhere."
"Prism, we talked about this," Grim started, but before he could say anything else, Prism wrapped him in a tight hug.
"Come home," Prism whispered gently. He extended the embrace for a long time, soaking in the memory of their bodies pressed together. "When this is all over . . . I'm renewing my promise. We'll find a quiet corner of the world to settle, and just be alive. I love you." They parted, and Prism said forcefully as tears rolled down his cheeks, "Stay alive, Grim."
For once, Grim seemed uncertain. Then he nodded, his eyes also brimming with tears. "I promise. I love you."
And then Grim was gone, picking his way slowly through the trees toward the valley floor. He would start running as soon as he reached more level ground, and dance among the demons as he had on so many battlefields before. Prism hoped it would not be the last time he saw his lover dance.
It was Revash's turn after that, and she handed a stone to each of them. The stone bore an Elrok symbol that Revash had drawn with her own blood, allowing her to connect to each one as if it was an extension of herself. Concentrating on the stone in her own hand, Revash linked them all together and the air shimmered around them.
Prism took a step back in surprise, even though he'd expected the result before him. Where his companions had once stood, now stood demons. In order to maintain the ruse as effectively as possible, Revash had given them a variety of forms. With her bulkier frame, she wore the guise of a Goden. To Neredos she had given the bone-plated appearance of a Nobak demon. Veil and Nijal, with their slighter forms, appeared as naked Ibrix demons, their salamander-like skin erupting in flames.
"You all look horrible," Prism said.
"Trust me, Prism," Neredos replied, "you don't look much better. You might hit as hard as a Nobak, but I hope you don't have to wear that skin for long."
"I wish I could've looked like a Quay," Nijal lamented. "They're the prettiest by far."
"Unfortunately, you don't move anything like one," Revash said. "I had to stick to the upright ones, in order to maintain the illusion. Trust me, it's better this way."
Nijal sighed, but then nodded and looked to Neredos. "Are you ready for this?"
Neredos shook his head, but then turned and started down the slope toward the valley. The others followed silently behind, each one plagued with thoughts of doom, warring with hopeless hope.
Prism felt the moment that the demons spotted Grim. He detected it as a slight adrenaline spike across the bond. The years spent fighting demons had changed Grim dramatically, and there wasn't an ounce of fear in him as he let the adrenaline take over. Focus and eagerness flooded through him, and then the chase was on.
The group could hear the demons surging through the trees, angry growls and snarls rippling through the swarm. The few flying demons they could see through the treetops were on the move, angling toward Grim's position. Prism felt the heat of flames through the bond and knew that Grim was in the process of sucking the energy from an Ibrix.
Prism fed on the small traces of energy coming across the bond. His link to Grim had afforded them many benefits, but the fact that it bolstered Prism's own healing was one of the best perks. It did little to assuage Prism's worry, however. But it was time to continue.
They reached the valley floor several minutes later and saw that the demons were moving toward the western mountain. That left an open patch to the east that the demons were quickly vacating. This was where the group headed, making haste, as if they were eager to join the fight, but keeping their trajectory toward Mount Varun.
Every passing minute was painful for Prism, for now he could see the conflict in the distance, instead of just feel it. Grim was surrounded and then he wasn't, time and time again. Every so often he would kill a demon to get through, and every so often one of the demons would score a hit on him.
But the demons were no more organized than a thousand cats trying to catch one mouse. They spent most of their time running into each other, and very little time swatting at the mouse. In some ways, having so many demons after Grim at once gave him the advantage. All their attention was on him, but most of them were useless, unless he came close by.
That did little to help Prism. He couldn't stop himself from looking in Grim's direction, wondering if the next blow that landed on his lover would kill him instantly. It would only take one claw across the neck, a quill through the heart, or a Nobak's blood-drinking grasp to kill Grim for good. Prism wanted to scream in frustration.
Veil appeared next to Prism and said, "He's doing okay, Prism. He's still there."
"I can feel him, but I don't know how long I can watch this. He's never faced so many demons without someone to watch his back. Never," Prism said, shaking his head.
"Could you two shut up?" Nijal whispered harshly. "We're going to get noticed."
Chastened, Prism kept his mouth shut, but his eyes continued to swivel back toward where Grim danced amongst the demons. Every muscle in Prism's body ached with his desire to go to his lover's side, but he continued to follow Neredos nonetheless. They all had their jobs to do, and Prism had to trust that it would work out.
He heard someone stumble, then curse under their breath. Glancing around, Prism first became aware that several of the demons had changed direction and were headed back toward them. Veil noticed this as well and said, "Wait . . . they're circling back. Why?"
"I don't know, something . . ." Nijal said from behind Prism. He glanced back at her, staring in confusion as the young Gor woman patted down her pockets. "Khiva!" She cursed.
"What happened?" Prism asked, still not catching on.
And then it dawned on him. He was staring at Nijal, not a demon. She appeared every bit as Gor as she always had, and Prism was not the only one who had noticed. The demons knew she was there, and Grim was no longer the only target.
"I dropped my stone when I stumbled," Nijal said, horror plain in her eyes. But then she shoved Prism roughly, pointing toward Mount Varun. "Get to the mountain. Now! Run!" She cried.
Then she took off running, not away from the demons but toward them, aiming straight for the middle of the valley. She reached into her pack as she ran, drawing out several more bundles of explosives. Prism lost track of her through the trees, after several seconds, then turned to the others, urging them forward.
They sped toward the foot of Mount Varun, knowing that with Nijal's identity now compromised, she would trigger the avalanche before the demons reached her. It was the only chance they had.
The sky exploded above them as they reached the mountain. Prism looked up to see huge sheets of snow cascading down the slopes surrounding the valley. The demons had divided into two groups. Most were still swarming around Grim, but a large section had broken off toward Nijal's position. All of them looked up now, seeing the wave of snow and debris descending on them.
"Grim's going to get buried too!" Prism shouted, staring frantically at the swarm surrounding his lover's position.
"You can't do anything about it, Prism. Stay here," Veil said, grabbing his arm and pulling him back.
"Butó" even as Prism began to protest, a second wave of explosions rocked the bottom of the valley, centered on Nijal's location. The demons who had been fleeing the avalanche were showered with exploding trees and rocks, making them hesitate in their advance.
The hesitation was just enough for the avalanche to catch them from behind as the snow and debris swept over their position. Clouds of white mist covered everything, obscuring vision of all, except for the flying demons that had managed to escape the wave, and those far enough away from the mountains to have escaped the avalanche entirely.
"Come on, we have to keep going!" Veil shouted, pulling Prism with her.
Numbly, Prism followed her. They only made it a short distance farther up when he realized that neither Neredos nor Revash looked like demons anymore. They had entered the magic-suppression field surrounding Mount Varun, and their illusion had faded.
He heard the demons before they arrived, but he barely had time to turn as the first one reached them. The small Quay fell to Revash's thrown hatchet before it even came close to digging its claws into Prism's flesh. He nodded a quick thanks to Revash, pulled the hatchet from the Quay's skull, and tossed it back to the Elrok.
"I will hold this position as well as I can," he shouted. "You two have to continue upward!"
Neredos bowed to Prism and waved Revash onward, then sprinted up the next leg of the trail. Revash followed, then quickly overtook Neredos, her more seasoned climbing techniques giving her the advantage. They quickly disappeared over the next ridge as Prism turned to meet the next demon in line.
An Ibrix stood before him, head and shoulders taller than Prism and with half-formed wings sprouting from its back. Prism launched toward his foe, foot leading in a flying kick that caught the demon square in the chest and drove it backward. As Prism landed, he rotated into a leg sweep, taking the demon to the ground.
Confident that he now had the demon where he wanted, Prism moved forward to crush the demon's skull. Then he caught sight of the field of snow in the valley beyond and hesitated for a fraction of a second as his heart searched for Grim through the bond.
That hesitation was all the Ibrix needed to get its bearings, and it reached up with its large flaming hand and grasped Prism's thigh, throwing him backward. The searing heat from the demon's burning flesh sent waves of pain through Prism's body, and he screamed as he fell to the rocks of Mount Varun.
As the demon started to rise, Veil dashed forward, fear and resolve warring on her features as she faced the demon. She placed her hand against the demon's flesh, grimacing at the heat, and ended its life by sucking its lifeforce away.
Veil returned to Prism's side and reached for the mass of charred flesh on his thigh. He moved his hand out of the way, allowing her access to heal the wound. It was too grievous for his nanites to handle on their own. Once she was finished, she helped him to his feet, and together they stood facing the valley.
"Are you okay?" Veil asked.
Prism nodded, but he quickly realized his own thoughts were far louder in his head than they had been before. Normally there were more sensations there, more emotions creating chaos that dulled his own. He glanced down at his thigh and realized that the demon must have seared him deep into the muscle, eradicating the tattoo he bore which connected him to Grim.
"He's . . . I can't . . . I can't feel him," Prism said frantically, staring out at the still settling avalanche. "Where is he? He can't be dead, can he? He can't be, Veil! He can't be!"
Veil placed her hand on his shoulder and stared him in the eye. "He's out there. He'll survive. Hopefully they both will."
Prism desperately searched Veil's eyes for the conviction he lacked. The link he'd had with Grim for over ten years was gone, or at least had dulled beyond recognition. Nothing would convince him that Grim was alive until they saw each other again. "How do you know, Veil?" he asked hoarsely.
"I don't, but that doesn't change anything," Veil said firmly. "It's down to you and me. I can't guarantee I can kill them like Grim does, but you better believe I'm going to try."
Prism shook his head, his mouth working wordlessly. But then he felt it. A small connection, like a candle in the distance on a moonless night. Grim was still out there, somewhere. It was the only sign he needed, and it firmed his resolve like setting cement.
"Let's do this," he growled, then faced the swarm.
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